OPENING in February, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s Tickling Jock: Comedy Greats exhibition will feature some of the most famous faces in 20th-century Scottish humour.
Taking its name from Harry Lauder’s saucy music hall smash and running through to Billy Connolly’s earliest appearance on Parkinson, it will feature images of legends such as Rikki Fulton, Chic Murray, Jack Milroy, Johnny Beattie, Stanley Baxter, Dave Willis, Harry Gordon, Lex McLean, Tommy Lorne, Johnny Victory, Dorothy Paul and Ronnie Corbett.
A more polished and lucrative offspring of Victorian music hall, variety dominated Scottish culture in the first half of the 20th century. The likes of the powerful Moss Empire chain, founded by H E Moss, built grand theatres throughout the country, the north of England and eventually, London. You could see 12 shows a week in some theatres and comedians would frequently top the bill of singers, dancers and novelty acts.
But as Max Tyler, official historian of the British Music Hall Society points out: “For every one performer who left his or her mark, there were some two or three hundred artistes who, whilst good performers in their day, left little or no records behind. There have been many books written on the subject of variety and music hall but they nearly all tend to deal with well-known names. The same old anecdotes and incidents keep on cropping up and getting passed on.”
Included in the exhibition are husband and wife double-act Grace Clark and Colin Murray, who performed together as a pianist and singer from 1926 and married in 1931. Over time, they shifted from straight songs to a repertoire that was increasingly defined by their marital banter.
Glaswegian theatre impresario Ross Bowie called it “a terrible tragedy” that they were not captured on film or television. “Clark was the greatest comedienne that I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says. “That woman was a comic genius and had a lot to offer in entertainment but television never gave her the chance … her facial expressions were excellent.”
Stand-up Susan Morrison laments that Scotland never produced a female comic star in that era with an international following like Lancashire-born Gracie Fields or American performers Phyllis Diller and Fanny Brice. Nevertheless, when the amateur historian hosts Giggling Jock: A Short History Of Scottish Comedy at the Stand next week, she’ll be revisiting the underappreciated female acts she considers “proto-stand-ups”.
Among them is Molly Weir, best remembered for children’s television series Rentaghost, but a keen chronicler of showbusiness anecdote, who was first spotted on stage impersonating Fields and Marlene Dietrich. Then there’s Renée Houston, latterly known for playing battleaxes in Carry On movies but hailed by the journalist and playwright Albert Mackie as “probably the most talented comedienne Scotland ever produced”. Born into a music hall family, Houston’s earliest double act was with her younger sister Billie, who dressed up as a boy. They appeared together in the 1926 Royal Variety Show and footage of their act can still be seen on YouTube.
“Unless your family were theatrical, it was extremely difficult and a big step to get up on a stage,” Morrison reflects. “There was a tiny flowering for women after the First World War. But then the establishment really knuckled that back down again. After the Second World War, women were encouraged to go back into the home, have families, cook the dinner.”
One exception was Doris Droy, who came from a churchgoing family but acquired the nickname Suicide Sal, and was later commemorated in song by her rock singer niece Maggie Bell. Droy’s risqué material with her husband Frank, in pantomime especially, escaped the censor’s wrath thanks to the broad Glaswegian dialect and in-jokes they delivered it with. Writing in 1952, the journalist Colm Brogan said: “The most completely liberated Glasgow comic is a woman, Doris Droy, Queen of the Queen’s, that small and profoundly prolific music hall behind Glasgow Cross. Her approach is direct and dynamic and her voice would make a pneumatic road drill or an electric riveting machine sound like the soft purring of a contented cat … She is a completely authentic interpreter of Glasgow life on the basement level.”
Top billed acts invariably dominated reviews. Yet these notices acknowledged that some of the most talented comics were the feeds setting up the gags. And plenty of the most accomplished “straightmen” were women, such as Helen Norman for Jack Radcliffe and Anne Fields, who appeared in her first sketch aged 14 at the Pavilion Theatre in Perth, accidentally slapping Tommy Lester so hard that she knocked him out.
Then there was Maidie Dickson, who with husband Chic Murray became known as The Tall Droll and The Small Doll. While he is remembered as the star, and she retreated more into script advising, their roles were reversed in the early days. Ross Bowie’s father, G B Bowie, declared that he would take the diminutive singer and accordionist for Friday and Saturday nights at the Roxy in Falkirk, but only if Chic wasn’t on stage with her, relegating him to opening and shutting the curtains.
In time, Chic learned to pace his distinctive humour more effectively and his wife, as she recalled, “took a back seat but I had to be there. He just couldn’t work at first without me there, I don’t know why.” They subsequently divorced but remained on amicable terms.
Robert Ross, currently writing a book, Forgotten Heroes of Comedy, notes that the duo’s act was “tried and tested around Scotland for many years before they hit on a winning formula. And once you found what worked in the variety days, that’s what you’d stick with. I don’t think there was any particular sexism in the theatre, there were plenty of funny women around to disprove that.
“Hylda Baker was writing and directing her own shows from a young age, Joyce Grenfell too. But the way Chic’s career developed, and indeed the way George Formby and Max Miller’s career developed, they needed someone to manage their careers. In terms of power, the wives were arguably more powerful than the comic. They dictated their careers.”
With variety on the wane in the 1960s, marital crosstalk was absorbed into television sitcom. “The essence of a man just wanting an easy life and a woman buzzing around, making his life difficult by wanting him to do things,” says Morrison. “But from what I understand, Maidie was a real firecracker and they were wonderful together. Something’s definitely been lost there.”
• Giggling Jock: A Short History Of Scottish Comedy is at the Stand Comedy Club, Edinburgh, 15 November, at 5pm, as part of Previously, Scotland’s history festival. www.historyfest.co.uk